What do Minnesota professors tell students about textbooks?


I’ve written about a state report on ways to keep textbook costs down – including how professors can help – as well as how students at community colleges and state universities see the issue.

One of the findings (and I’ll explore more in coming days) was that only about four in 10 students thought professors took cost into account. The state report suggested that professors talk to students about prices and ways to cut costs.

So what do faculty say, if anything, in class?

I got responses from dozens of professors in our Public Insight Network. Most seemed aware of the cost of most to all of the textbooks they used in class — though many had little or no knowledge of the federal information disclosure requirements.

Most said they made at least some sort of mention in class about the texts they use, where they could find them, and how they could save some money.

The most common suggestions were:

  • buying them online
  • renting them
  • buying used versions
  • buying e-books
  • checking them out of a reserved section of the library
  • sharing them

Others had some interesting ideas, and overall I got a sense that many professors indeed know the ins and outs of the textbook market, technology and all.

But first let’s hear from someone who went against the grain.

Century College microbiology professor Mary Harbaugh wrote in that she “never” mentions price. The cost of a book is a factor — but not a primary factor in her choices. She said:

I believe that students have to accept that textbook purchases are a significant portion of their higher education costs.

Let’s look at some of those who said they “sometimes” or “always” talk about cost:

Alonso Sierralta, who teaches art at Concordia University in St. Paul, appears to start early with students and talks to them in detail:

At the beginning of the term, we discuss purchase possibilities, websites on where to get used books, and possible textbook rental systems.

Both Tom Hergert, instructional design and technology professor at St. Cloud State University, and MSU – Mankato film professor Donald Larsson, said they go so far as to explain their choices to the class:

Hergert writes:

When I require books I suggest alternate sources from the full price at our bookstore. When there are multiple editions, I explain the differences and the benefits of latest editions with the risks of earlier.

I assure them that I consider their finances when making decisions about books. I tell them when and why I’ve chosen less expensive trade publications over more complete textbooks.

Jill Jepson, a linguistics professor at St. Catherine University, sounds even more concerned:

If the only option for the class was an expensive textbook, I explain why. I let them know I am aware of the cost and would have assigned a cheaper textbook if one were available.

And University of Minnesota – Duluth juvenile-justice professor Dale Wolf makes one thing clear:

During the course introduction I explain how much money I am really saving them by the use of links to public domain matters.

Lake Superior College humanities and philosophy professor Jody Ondich throws out a warning to her students:

They can have some luck with online sellers such as half.com, but delivery is sporadic, and not trustworthy.

St. Cloud State music professor Scott Miller said he’ll tell students when an earlier edition will suffice, and Winona State University physics professor Nathan Moore goes a little further:

I tell my students to search out a version of the text that is two to three revisions behind the one that’s currently in press. There’s generally a 90 percent discount for the old version. This makes my students vultures, and it probably hurts the textbook companies a little, but I can’t say it bothers me. There’s no need for the constant cycle of revisions they offer.

Minnesota State University Mankato professor Anna Hagemeister, who teaches social work, tells her students they can buy a previous edition “and just look over the newer content” in the new book. She says why:

I find that many textbook publishers make new editions that have the most minute changes. I reviewed one a couple years ago where there weren’t even page number differences from one edition to the next. … Everything (even headings) was essentially the same with a few updated statistics.

Century College communication professor Aaron Klemz’s tip for his students:

Try to buy textbooks online, and especially sell books back online. The book buyback prices are nearly always better online.

Some faculty said students shouldn’t always sell back books, because they’ll need those texts in later semesters or even after they graduate.

Allison Spenader, education professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, helps them on that one, saying:

I recommend which ones to sell back, and which are good to keep.

Robert Seidel, who teaches the history of science and technology at the University of Minnesota:

Since I am not committed to a single source, I advise them to use the internet either to shop for discounted or used copies or to save money if they want. Since the University Bookstore prevents me from recommending a specific off-campus source, I cannot do more than this. If, however, their is a publicly available electronic copy I usually put a link on my course website.

Georgia Holmes, a Minnesota State University – Mankato business law professor, was critical of bookstores.:

I tell them that I try to keep the cost down. I tell them that I don’t set the cost of the textbook in the bookstore. I also tell them that the whole business model for textbooks is changing, because of the availability of e-books and electronic delivery services. …

They also eliminate the need for oncampus bookstores, because students can purchase the e-version directly from the publisher. Campus bookstores are becoming more and more irrelevant. They only add an additional layer to the marketing channel that pretty much doubles the price of the textbook. Publishers know this too, but have a delicate relationship with campus bookstores.

… I also tell students that I try to use the same book for several years.

And yet Gustavus Adolphus College professor Lisa Heldke, who teaches philosophy and gender studies, sticks up for bookstores in class — to the exclusion of alternatives:

I really encourage (students) to buy from our local bookstore on campus, where profits are plowed back into programming for them. … I am unwilling to submit selections before registration, or share even more info about options (e.g. Amazon.com) because I think it is a good idea for students to buy their books at a place where the profits benefit THEM.